Breaking News: When Speed Overshadows Accuracy

This selfies was taken two hours before the first bomb went off.

April 15, 2013 “Lets go Red Sox, lets go!” I cheer over the third baseline at Fenway Park with my Dad and my best friend. It’s 2:00 p.m. and the stands are clearing out after the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2. With the smell of Fenway Franks in the air and the sun shinning down I turn to my friend and say, “I can’t believe this is the first time you have ever been to a Red Sox game!” My dad interjects as we are walking out of the stadium, “You couldn’t have picked a better day to be in Boston.” Little did he know that in less than an hour two bombs would explode near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, only a few miles away from us.

Killing three people and injuring at least 264, the Boston Marathon bombing will haunt my memories for years to come. At first there was just confusion. Then there was chaos. After safely walking to my aunt’s apartment in Brookline we did what most people do in the face of a tragedy: we turned on the news.

After being locked up in my house for the duration of the two-day manhunt, John King of CNN reported that the Boston Marathon bomber had been arrested. Soon after, several other news organizations like The Associated Press, Fox News and The Boston Globe seemed to confirm this news, all reporting that the arrest had been made. We all thought that we were safe. But we weren’t.

In fact, it was not until April 19, two whole days later that the bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was actually captured and arrested. The bottom line: CNN got it wrong. It wasn’t just a typo or the misspelling of a name; public safety was put at risk due to this error. President Obama addressed the pressure to break news fast in light of this error, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions,” he said. He added, “But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations. That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.”

Everything today is all about speed. What do we want? The news. When do we want it? Now. The advancement of technology has transformed the way we read and produce the news. What once was a daily routine of sitting down to read the newspaper every morning has become a constant connection to information. The popularity of smart phones has intensified the pressure to break news quickly.  Today, journalists are so focused on being the first to report the news that they often cut ethical corners to increase their speed.

Besides the Boston Marathon bomber manhunt mishap, another notable time when reporters got it wrong was in the case of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. At 2:01 p.m. NPR’s newscaster Barbara Klein reported, “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona has been shot and killed during a public event in Tucson, AZ.” At 2:12 p.m. NPR’s social media editor Andy Carvin tweeted that a gunman had killed Giffords. At 2:36 p.m. Carvin tweeted, “There are conflicting reports about whether she was killed.” By 3 p.m. NPR went back to reporting Giffords’ condition as unknown. Other news organizations such as CNN, Fox News and The New York Times reported on Giffords’ death citing NPR as their source.

Due to this error, people all around the country who follow NPR on Twitter had to deal with the loss of Congresswoman Giffords, when she was not even dead. In fact, Giffords made a miraculous recovery from the assassination attempt that left her with a severe brain injury. NPR’s media reporter David Folkenflik tweeted, “What we’re seeing is the process of reporting breaking news, at times shakily, in real time”. He added, “Before cable & web, this would have played out far more out of sight. Doesn’t exempt journalists from having to report with great care.”

The pressure to break news in today’s highly digital world is crushing once credible news organizations. Even notable organizations such as CNN and NPR have made grave mistakes in the reporting of the Boston Marathon bomber manhunt and the assassination attempt of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, respectively. Yes, technology has unleashed access to more information than ever before, but reporters and viewers still need to be cautious of the validity of the information they receive.